What can I do to prevent vulvar discomfort and vaginal infections?
Many women experience uncomfortable, vaginal infections (vaginitis) at one time or another. The area around the entrance to the vagina (vulva) can also become irritated. Steps can be taken to relieve and prevent vulvar discomfort and vaginal infections.
This document has been prepared to provide you with general tips for maintaining a healthy vulva and vagina. Not all vaginal infections are alike and home treatments can worsen some types. If you have any concerns about your vulvar or vaginal health, or notice unusual changes in vaginal discharge, contact your health care provider if the problem persists.
The vulva and vagina
The vulva is the area of female sex organs that lies outside of the vagina. These organs include folds of sensitive tissue called the "labia" (labia means "lips"). There are two sets of labia. The outermost folds are called the labia majora. A second set of folds, called the labia minora, is enclosed within the labia majora. The vulva also contains the mounded area made by the pubic bone (mons pubis), a small, round organ (clitoris), and the openings of the vagina and urinary canal (urethra). The vagina is the passageway that extends from outside of the body to the uterus (womb).
Vaginal infections and vulvar care
Vaginal infections occur when bacteria, funguses or other organisms grow uncontrolled. Some of these organisms already live in the vagina and are kept at healthy levels by coexisting with other organisms. Infectious organisms can also be introduced into the vagina by improper hygiene or unsafe sex.
The goal of vulvar care is to keep the vulva dry and free from irritants. In this way, you can prevent the vulva from becoming red, swollen and irritated. Because many infections are introduced into the vagina, these tips also provide a basis for good, vaginal care.
Tips for vulvar care
- Use only warm water to wash the vulva. Dry thoroughly with a clean towel. (If the vulva is very irritated, you can try drying it with a blow dryer set on cool.)
- The vagina cleanses itself naturally in the form of normal, vaginal discharge. Avoid using douches unless prescribed by your physician. These products can upset the natural balance of organisms.
- Wear only white, 100 percent cotton underwear. Avoid wearing nylon, acetate, or other manmade fibers.
- Avoid wearing thongs.
- Rinse underclothes carefully after washing. Or, double-rinse.
- Wash new underclothes before wearing.
- Use a mild soap (such as Woolite®) for washing underclothes. Do not use detergents (especially Tide) or fabric softeners (including dryer sheets.)
- Use soft toilet tissue (white only).
- Use tampons instead of sanitary napkins to control menstrual bleeding. (Do not use deodorant tampons.) Do not leave tampons in for a long period, due to toxic shock syndrome. Do not leave tampons in all night.
- Take Aveeno® sitz baths daily, if prescribed by your health care provider.
- Don't scratch.
- Avoid wearing nylon pantyhose or panty girdles. They trap heat and moisture, providing an ideal breeding environment for organisms. When nylons or leggings are required, wear cotton or nylons with a cotton panty.
- Avoid these feminine hygiene products, which can irritate the vulva: sanitary pads, feminine spray and deodorants, Vaseline®, oils, greases, bubble baths, bath oils, talc, or powder.
Over-the-counter products for vaginal lubrication
- Replens® (Warner Wellcome) - Using applicator, apply three times a week at bedtime to maintain normal vaginal moisture.
- Gyne-Moistrin® (Schering-Plough)
For use during intercourse:
- Astroglide® (Astro-Lube, Inc.)
- Lubrin® Vaginal Suppository (Upsher-Smith Laboratories, Inc.) - Developed for postmenopausal women
- Condom-Mate® Vaginal Suppository (Upsher-Smith)— Developed for use with condoms; same as Lubrin®, but smaller.
- Today® Personal Lubricant (Made by manufacturers of the Today® Sponge)
- K-Y Jelly® (Johnson and Johnson)
Petroleum-based lotions (such as Vaseline®) are not recommended. They may cause irritation and yeast infections and can weaken condoms to the point of breaking.